A Contrarian View

I finally watched the Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer (CNBC “Mad Money”) espisode on The Daily Show (Hulu) and found myself nodding my head several times as Stewart grilled Cramer. Not for the first time, I worried about the fact that most Americans get their “news” from TV. And Cramer admitted to Stewart that there’s pressure to fill up a 24×7 “live” news channel with … well … not the most robustly researched opinion.

I don’t know who reported what (or when) about the current banking crisis. In part, that’s because I’ve been distrustful of the business press since the mid-1990s, when I spent part of my spare time trying to debunk Wall Street-influenced doom-and-gloom stories about Apple. My not-supported-by-research belief is that the business press, by and large, is a cheerleader for — not a critic of — business. And by business press, I mean everything from the WSJ to the FT to the business pages of the NYT or the Seattle Times. Cable “news” — which I think of as nothing more than a stock ticker and print news recycler — is also a cheerleader, I believe.

On the other hand, the NPR “Giant Pool of Money” episode on This American Life was one of the best explanations that I had heard (May 2008) of the mess that should be known as The Bush Bubble That Killed Wall Street. It wasn’t the first, but it was riveting, insightful, educational and scary as all get out.

So what am I being contrarian about? Rescuing newspapers. Read on.

Again, from PBS: on tonight’s Online Newshour, Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review, said:

I don’t think the business press did adequately warn the public…  There were good stories about warning about housing bubbles, also good stories about dangerous mortgage instruments, consumer-type stories.

But I think, when you look back at the record, you’ll see that confronting powerful institutions about their lending practices, not to mention Wall Street, was inadequate.

I read that last sentence, and the light bulb came on.

In the past seven years, there have been two major failures in American journalism, failures of “confronting powerful institutions.” These are fundamental, core failures of the watchdog role of the press that I was weaned on at the Grady School (now College) of Journalism.

If you have to ask, they are Iraq and the CDO/Housing (Bush Bubble) mess.

In both cases, the press has done a mea culpa after-the-fact. But after-the-fact isn’t good enough, especially since both have left this nation bleeding red ink. And we’ll be bleeding red ink for decades. One hopes that the rest of the world remains willing to provide us with transfusions in the interim, however long that might be.

Even before the realization that the watchdog was asleep, I did not want to save the titans of the newspaper business any more than I wanted to bail out AIG et al. After this realization, I feel even less inclined.

Yes, I understand the “too big to fail” argument, whether we are talking about banks or news institutions.

In rebuttal, I ask: how do we as a culture and society extricate ourselves from entrenched dependence on mega-institutions? “Too big to fail” is a failure of risk management on the part of regulatory system and elected officials and, at its core, the electorate. It also is a visible testament to greed. (Cramer responded to Stewart’s question about 35-to-1 leverage with a quip about desire for 30% returns. We are seeing why greed is considered one of the seven deadly sins.)

As both Clay Shirky and I wrote this week, the economics of newspapering have been shattered by digital technologies. And as Clay wrote today, “journalism has always been subsidized.” In addition to losing classifieds to Craigslist and eBay, newspapers were sucker-punched by the loss of national and regional retail advertising as that industry, too, has grown more consolidated. Only small papers and free weeklies seems to have good relationships with small, local businesses.

We don’t know yet what the new “news” model will look like, because we are at the center of the disruptive change. But there will be a news model; I hope that it’s not just for elites.

This doesn’t mean that I believe journalism should (or will) disappear. It doesn’t mean that I believe this will be easy or painless. It does mean that I believe in my heart of hearts that news is important enough that someone will figure out how to make journalism work in the digital age. There will be more sites like TalkingPointsMemo and WestSeattleBlog. There will be news models that we haven’t imagined yet.

The magnitude of the failures of the mainstream media in these two crucial instances, coupled with the ongoing transformation of our economic system from one based on scarcity to one based on bits, is why I believe the entrenched conglomerates that own newspapers have to be allowed to fail.

Where I have my fingers crossed: that this transition is speedy enough that democracy does not suffer any more than it already has with the incumbent system.

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